New Delhi: In an attempt to allay concerns expressed by industry over phone taps by government agencies and the leaking of some of their contents to the media, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh indicated on Tuesday that the powers for accessing telephone conversations would be used judiciously.
The assurance came a day after Congress chief Sonia Gandhi urged her party, caught in a welter of controversies and corruption charges, to control the damage.
Singh said he was aware of the “nervousness” in the corporate sector over the taps.
“We must also look for solutions through technology to prevent access of telephone conversation to systems outside the institutional framework of government,” he said on Tuesday, breaking his silence on the issue for the first time since the leaks began appearing in print and on the Internet in November. “Legal mechanisms already exist and they are in place. They need to be strengthened for more effective enforcement.”
“I am asking the cabinet secretary to look into these issues and report back to the cabinet within the next one month,” he said, adding that he was “reaffirming the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s commitment to provide an enabling environment conducive to the growth of the corporate sector.”
The Prime Minister’s remarks came in the wake of the recent disclosures in the media about conversations that lobbyist Niira Radia had with top industrialists, journalists and politicians. Tata group chairman Ratan Tata has sought a ban on further publication of the tapped conversations between him and Radia. The home ministry had earlier asked the revenue secretary to hold an inquiry about how the recordings got leaked.
A top government official said the cabinet secretary will be “exploring measures to prevent the recording of frivolous conversations and stop the leakage of information, as it happened with the Radia tapes”. The official, who did not want to be named, added that the government was looking into the option of penalizing service providers, such as phone companies, if information is leaked at their end.
He added that on average around 5,000 conversations are being monitored daily by the intelligence agencies, mainly for security-related information.
In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, the government said the tapping began after then finance minister P. Chidambaram received a complaint on 16 November 2007 that Radia had built a business empire of Rs 300 crore in nine years and that she was an “agent of foreign intelligence agencies”.
A senior Central Bureau of Investigation official said it was investigating around 4,000 hours of conversations between Radia and others.
Singh said the government’s power to order phone taps is aimed at “protecting national security and preventing tax evasions and money laundering”. But he also said these powers have to be used “with utmost care and under well-defined rules, procedures and mechanisms so that they are not misused”.
The remarks are meant to allay the concerns that companies may have, said B.G. Verghese, political analyst and visiting professor, Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank.
“It is the government’s job to reassure corporates when there is panic and anxiety,” he said. “People are misusing or manipulating them to create a panic and influence the stock market. So, it’s fair that the government feels there is a need for looking into it.”
Singh put the matter in the right perspective, Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari said. “He (the Prime Minister) said difficult times warrant these kind of interventions.”
On Monday, addressing party lawmakers on the last day of the winter session of Parliament, Gandhi asked the party to engage in damage control to counter the damage done to it by corruption allegations.
L.K. Advani, leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, criticized Singh and said he seemed to be more concerned about the leaks than the credibility of his government on the issue of corruption.
“I do not know what this exactly means. Why does one speak so much? Are these the matters about which the Prime Minister should be worried? I don’t understand,” he said.
Bajaj Auto Ltd chairman Rahul Bajaj backed Singh’s comments. “Public interest is important, but so is privacy, dignity and self-respect of individuals,” he was cited as saying by PTI.
“I do believe as the Prime Minister said today that in today’s world some of these things are unfortunately necessary,” he said.
Bajaj, also a member of Parliament of the Rajya Sabha, said the leaks were a concern.
Godrej group chairman Adi Godrej said phone-tapping should be not be done indiscriminately, PTI reported. It should be done only in cases involving national security or to combat terrorism, he said.
Anuja and PTI contributed to this story.